Sustainability is one of the bywords of the day. Despite the attention demanded by other pressing issues, each new environmental crisis forces more of us to recognize the necessity to live our lives in a way that does not diminish the prospects of future generations. While the urgency of this need is still recognized by too few, especially among policymakers, the overwhelming evidence mounts. We must change.

Cleveland’s place and potential in the sustainability story are unique, with an iconic river that empties into a lake system containing 20 percent of the world’s fresh water. Of course, the Cuyahoga River’s fame was acquired involuntarily with the publicity that attended a burning oil slick in 1969. And even before then, the popular press was declaring the “death” of Lake Erie from various environmental stresses.

The fire of 1969 was a relatively minor event, but it became a powerful symbol and catalyzed the modern environmental movement even as it came to represent the decline of Cleveland and the industrial Midwest. The fire ignited an outcry that questioned the nation’s stewardship of our natural resources and contributed significantly to the passage of the Clean Water Act.

Some Clevelanders would still prefer to forget the fire. But the restoration of the Cuyahoga over the past 40 years has become a remarkable story that carries its own potent symbolism. In addition, public attitudes have shifted. People are much more environmentally conscious, and there is even a growing recognition that the Cuyahoga River and the fire that made it famous give Greater Cleveland a competitive advantage if creatively leveraged.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson began the process of seizing that advantage in 2009 with a three-day summit conference entitled “Sustainable Cleveland 2019,” keying on the date that will mark the 50th anniversary of the river fire. The summit sought to harness thoughts from a broad range of people and organizations for creating a “green” economy. Ideas ranged from microfinance programs to a fresh water institute at the mouth of the river. These and scores of other ideas are yet being sifted. While the momentum of the summit is still to be fashioned into a meaningful force, its ultimate significance will lie in demonstrating that a place with the industrial history of Cleveland can transform itself. That transformation would be especially powerful in the home of the burning river because it would be so unexpected.

A vital element of Cleveland’s sustainability advantage goes beyond the remediation of a degraded waterway and centers on fresh water itself. The world’s supply of fresh water is under strain from population growth, climate change, unsustainable development practices and other forces. The social, scientific and political issues associated with preserving fresh water will increasingly dominate the world’s thinking. Cleveland’s perch on the shore of one of the largest fresh water systems in the world can be forged into a vast community and economic benefit if the proper strategic focus is applied. We hope the Sustainable Cleveland 2019 summit puts us on that path.

Because Lake Erie is so vital to our future, we revisit its shoreline in this year’s photographic essay. The lake also was the subject of the annual report essay in 1997. The images portray Lake Erie’s natural appeal, its all-too-common inaccessibility and its enormous potential. The metaphorical impact of the photos lies in the line they portray between here and there; we have too often, in effect, walled off Lake Erie and embraced it only fitfully. As Cleveland strives to move from the tenuous present to the future we desire, and to achieve leadership in sustainable values and practices, we must find ways to tear down that wall.

David Abbott

David T. Abbott
Executive Director

The George Gund Foundation
1845 Guildhall Building
45 Prospect Avenue, West
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
Phone 216 241.3114
Fax 216 241.6560